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Thursday
Feb222018

Wilderness Journey

WILDERNESS JOURNEY

Lent I

Mk. 9:2-9

 

During the 1930's 40's and 50's my parents were close friends with another couple, John and Mary Smith. John was a school teacher and built his own house. He worked summers for the parks' department and taught both my brother and me to swim.  Mary pushed her baby buggy with my mother as they each had two children. My mother had boys; Mary two girls. Mary was talented in the crafts, loved decorating, made her daughters' clothes and was a scout leader. Like my parents they were good Methodists and kind, decent folks. Their older daughter, Jane, had considerable talent in the area of fine arts. My brother, who later had several of his own paintings on national tour, said that Jane was really good and had an incredible eye for beauty. Her sister, Betty, was more practical, stolid and very funny. Jane graduated from the Art Institute in Chicago, married, had a job, and lived with her husband on the Northside, not far from the "L", the rapid transit line.

 

While I was in college, about 1956, I received a letter from my mother which said that one afternoon Jane walked over to the "L" and threw herself in front of a train. She had not been sick nor visibly depressed. Her relationship with her husband was good. She left a note saying that she simply could not bear living any longer. In her jumble bag there were a number of poems which she had written over the year, but they yielded no clue as to why Jane committed suicide. Her parents were totally distraught. They entered their own wilderness for far more than 40 days. The demons, temptation and wild beasts tormented them for some time. My wife and I visited them several years later, and they had balanced out, but their loss was a permanent one. I remember my mother's asking me in her letter why Jane committed suicide and where God was in all of that. I wrote back that I did not know why she died, but I did know that God was with her. My answer seemed lame, but it was all I had.

 

When I worked on the passage from Mark about Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness with temptation and the wild beasts, I kept thinking of Jane's death and her parents' long ordeal. It struck me

that although it is impossible to know what Jesus was thinking when He was in the wilderness or to postulate any psychological or spiritual growth during that time, the story is important in an

emblematic way. It is highly charged with connotations in regard to the life of Israel, to Jesus and to our human condition.

 

Israel knew the wilderness. The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were nomadic and lived off the wilderness. There they met and wrestled with God. Israel went through the wilderness to Egypt, and returned from Exile, wandering for 40 years under Moses' command in the dessert. The prophets struggled with their calling as messengers, and like Elijah met God in the wilderness. Under the kings, Israel prospered, became cosmopolitan, split, fell, went into exile and returned to live under the yoke of Rome. The wilderness of the dessert became a wilderness of direction, value and loyalty. Like a parent, God reached out again and again towards an errant daughter, who constantly slipped His grasp, sought ephemeral worth and repeatedly inflicted wounds upon herself. (See for example the Book of Hosea). For four hundred years there had not been the voice of a prophet of God in all the land. Israel had gone into a spiritual wilderness.

 

Then onto the stage of history strove John the Baptist, calling for repentance and pointing to one who was greater than him, the strap of whose sandal John was not worthy to fasten. This man of

God, this Jesus, preached about a new kingdom, an eternal life, healed the blind, cleansed the lepers and made the lame to walk.

Surely God was present in this man. Surely He was the Son of Man. He was baptized by John and following the descent of a dove, the symbol both of the Holy Spirit and of the people of Israel, Jesus left and went into the dessert. He took with Him the spirit of God and the spirit of the people back into the dessert where the people were first formed and where -God and His people struggled, eventually hammering out a covenant. Jesus'  action embodied the life and history of Israel. Or in theological  terms, His act of entering the wilderness was in effect the incarnation of the salvific history of God's people. Recalling  Moses and Elijah, who also went into the wilderness, Jesus  entered that land, to be tempted and to encounter the wild beasts.

 

To some extent your and my own personal struggles aremirrored in and find their paradigm in the history of Israel. Westrive, fail, covenant, rebel, find faith and become lost. John andMary Smith's grief and pain were every bit as benumbing as that of any parent in the time of Moses, Elijah or Jesus. The captivity  of despair which drove Jane to the "L" track is a despair well  known to those who lived in the time of Isaiah. The story of Jesus'  experience in the dessert is not recounted by the early Church as  a sidebar on his inner psychological growth struggles. Rather it  stresses that Jesus was fully human, and that He took upon  Himself our struggles. He not only incarnated the life of the people  of God, He also incarnated our own very human struggles. He  became Isaiah's Suffering Servant. Jesus' victory over sin and  death, then, is His victory for us over our own struggle with sin  and death. In effect, the story of Jesus' temptation in the  wilderness is telling us that the pain which Jane felt, and which  her parents felt, was a pain which Christ Himself felt, and which  He carried along with and for them. The message of Christ as the Suffering Servant and as one who expiatingly suffers for us, may not seem of much immediate relief to those like Jane in the depths of despair or like her parents who were in the thralls of  grief. But the message sets limits and boundaries. It is a message  which leads to hope, to support and to the assurance that chaos  and meaninglessness fail and are not the answer to the problems  of life.

 

This Lent you and I are called to enter our own wildernesses and  to face our demons and wild beasts. For some of us the areas of encounter are those of vocation, illness, death, loss or diminishing capacity. For others of us they are the areas of loneliness, dependency, marriage and relationships. Now is the time for you  and me to look below the surface at the underlying conflicts and  fears, the unresolved hurts and losses which we have carried with  us for so long. This is not the time for blame, vengeance, or getting even. Rather it is a time for truthfulness with ourselves. It  is also a time to look at those places where there is underlying  love and affirmation, strength and creativity. Those are the places  where grace abounds. Perhaps we can do this alone. Perhaps we  should do it with a loved one. Perhaps we will do it with a  compassionate therapist.

 

The message of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness is both the assurance that He has been there before we have, and the  promise that He is there with us now. To not be alone in our  struggles changes the dynamics incredibly and is a sure sign of  victory. Christ did not struggle alone. He was ministered to by the  angels. We are in some ways more fortunate than He, for we are  not only ministered to by the angels but also by the Holy Spirit,  Christ Himself and our redeeming God.

 

This Lent, choose your wilderness and set upon your journey. Be  bold. Have courage. Be faithful. Persevere. For on your  pilgrimage of Christian formation you have unseen supportive  companions and a Messiah who knows the terrain and can guide  you toward the Kingdom of God. Amen.

 

Monday
Feb122018

Transfiguration

TRANSFIGURATION

Lk. 9:28-36

2/11/18

 

“In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in His bosom, that transfigures you and me….” So wrote Julia Ward Howe in 1861 when she penned the words for what we now know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Her words were put to the tune at that time that was called “John Brown’s Body.” The hymn is rather bellicose but that single line carries the sweet element of truth. No, Christ was not born among the lilies, but His life was one of transfiguration and transfigures your and my lives, as well as the life of this parish.

Were you to go over to St. John’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Main Street and Grove, you would find over the high altar a magnificent depiction of Jesus at the time of the transfiguration.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Luke tells us that Jesus took His disciples and went up on the mountain to pray. As He was praying His appearance and raiment became dazzling white. He was seen talking to Moses and Elijah about what was to come. Peter said, “Master, let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” A cloud overshadowed them and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” The disciples were cowed into silence.

The passage marks the time at which the disciples came to the realization that God was fully acting and present in Jesus. Jesus is seen as transfigured from being a holy man, a prophet-preacher-healer-rabbi into the Son of God. God’s power and glory are present in Jesus, who is to be understood as the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

The presence of God in Jesus transfigured not only the disciples’ understanding of Jesus, that presence transfigured the very lives of the disciples. From that time on, the Church recognized that the power of God in Jesus Christ, some call it the Holy Spirit, changes things. Jesus’ followers no longer live simply in the secular, work-a-day world. They live caught up in the power of God into a different dimension, into a holy other world, into a world that recognizes the numinous, the truly sacred. It is a world that recognizes that which is holy and sacred and changes lives and even history. The power of God in Christ, the glory of God in His bosom, does in deed transfigure you and me.

During the 1860’s in England and abroad, there was an upsurge of interest in liturgy and the sacraments, combined with an evangelical passion that energized the Anglican Communion. Much of the movement’s focus was upon things “catholic,” attitudes and liturgies found in the Catholic Church in Europe. A great reverence was given to the presence of Christ in the sacraments and to the offices of the church. This movement within the Anglican Communion was called the “Oxford Movement.” It was the parent of the Anglo-Catholic, or “high church,” wing of the Anglican Communion. Here in the United States priests who were part of that movement founded Kent School in Kent Connecticut and Holy Cross Monastery in West Nyack, New York, as well as Trinity College, Hobart College and many other institutions. The Anglican Church was going through a phase of transfiguration, from the staid, church of the manor and  “middle” or “broad church” traditions. One of the “middle church” parishes was St. John’s here in Stamford. Some within that parish sought a more “high church” liturgical and sacramental Anglo-Catholic orientation. Hence they established St. Andrew’s Parish as a mission here in Stamford.

One of the first priests who worked here went on to establish St. Saviour’s in Old Greenwich. Later he went out to the Southwest to establish a mission there. With each priest or rector the parish was transfigured by the piety and vision of that priest, as well as by the Holy Spirit working within the lives of the parishioners within the congregation.

The first priest that I remember was Norman Catir, who became rector of “The little church around the corner” in New York City, following his tenure here at St. Andrew’s. Many remember his fastidious emphasis upon liturgy. I met and briefly knew Tom Peterson, who brought a strong intellectual seriousness to his work. (As an aside, I might note that after he died, I discovered that he and I had almost identical theological libraries!) Upon his death the parish called Mark DeWolf. I remember standing on the front steps of the church when he and Jennifer arrived to begin their ministry here. Their lives transfigured the parish and mine as well. Since Mark’s retirement, there have been a series of interims and priests-in-charge. The parish was revived under Fr. Beattie, who brought calm to the parish, made many changes and led to the call of Fr. Alton to the parish. Under Fr. Alton’s supervision there was a sharp focus upon the Anglo-Catholic heritage of the parish, while at the same time there was a huge physical transfiguration of the fabric of the parish and its buildings. We are now in a new period of transfiguration, with an emphasis upon building up committees and a shift of greater responsibilities to the vestry and laity.

During this whole time that I have described, lives were transfigured and transformed here at St. Andrew’s. Various parishioners such as Kaye Jones, John and Elaine Lowdenslager, and Alvin Wellington played key roles in my life and in the lives of others. Many others influenced this parish by their intellect, piety, wit and devotion.

The testimonies to the transfiguring experiences in parishioners’ lives can be found in the various memorials and memorial plaques around the church and even by headstones in our cemetery. I interred the ashes of Janet Feeley alongside those of her husband. I did Requiem Masses for Gloria Codner, William McNairn and Ruby Robinson. Poignant and profound have been the experiences of members of this parish.

What makes this all happen is what happens at the altar each time we celebrate Mass. In the Mass the bread and wine are transfigured into the body and blood of Christ. We in turn are transfigured by that body and blood, so that Christ dwells in us and we in Him. The power of the Holy Spirit renews us and bears us up. Fr. Beattie once referred to St. Andrew’s as a place of healing and prayer. He was absolutely right. Healing and transfiguration take place here at St. Andrew’s through the offices of the church: the Mass, baptism, confession, absolution, anointing, marriage and burial. All of this is made possible by the celebration of the Mass and by the Holy Spirit working through the liturgy, the sacraments, and the lives of one another.

During the rest of this year we will seek to serve Christ through diligent, sacrificial and intelligent actions as part of the body of Christ. St. Andrew’s will continue to be a parish of healing and prayer, but most of all a center of transfiguration for you and for me, and for others within this community and city.

Let us go forth in the name of Christ. Amen.

-Fr. Gage-

Monday
Feb052018

His Healing Touch

HIS HEALING TOUCH

Mk. 1:29-39

2/4/18

On May 30th of 2001, I was seated at my desk at St. John’s Episcopal Church, when the phone rang. “Fr. Gage. This is the head nurse at Courtland Gardens nursing home. Mary Cauley is fading fast.” “How long does she have?” I asked. “ I don’t think she will last until midnight.” “Okay. I’ll be right over.” Mary Cauley was my 94-year-old mother-in-law. For the first 20 years of our marriage, she hated me. For the last 20 years she liked me. As you know, Mary also went by the name “Gladys.” Yes. This is a mother-in-law story, and some of you have heard it before.

When I arrived at Courtland Gardens, a very somber head nurse greeted me. “How is Mary doing?” “Well, there is no pulse, heartbeat or breathing, but she is doing about as well as can be expected.” “How long does she have?” “I don’t think she will last until dinner.” “Wow” I thought. Mary just lost six hours. I went into the room and Mary lay very still, ashen and drawn.

My wife, Faye, arrived and said, “How is mom?” “Well, there is no pulse, heart beat or breathing, but she is doing about as well as can be expected.” “How long does she have?” “I don’t think she will last until noon.” “Mary just lost 12 hours!” I thought.

I anointed Mary, said prayers at the time of death and then sat with her and Faye. I stroked Mary’s hair and said, “It’s okay, Mary. You are going to be with your parents, your husband, your daughter and grandson. All will be well.” And then, because Mary and I always had a guying back and forth, I said, “I know that you will miss cooking, washing the drapes, cleaning the blinds, scrubbing the floor and polishing the silver.” Mary hated housework. “You will particularly miss cleaning out the refrigerator and washing the windows. “

Mary sat bolt upright. Looked me square in the eye, pointed a finger at me and said, “In a pig’s ear I will!” She lay back down and closed her eyes. The head nurse’s jaw dropped down to her knees. Faye closed her eyes and said, “He’s done it again.” I turned and left. A day later Mary died and I preached at her funeral.  I do not claim to have powers of raising the dead.

Last Sunday I thought about Jesus’ ministry in Canaan. I realized that the anomaly in today’s story, that thing which gives it a ring of truth, is that this is a mother-in-law story! Have you noticed how the Gospel stories always get under your skin; always have a hook into life? Now I don't know about you, but I know that if I left my job and went wandering around with some new friends, my mother-in-law, Mary, would have been really steamed. She might even have gotten a case of the "mean reds" and taken to her bed. If I brought my friends home, and one of them went in and talked to her, and she was so taken with him that she cooled off, got up, and made us dinner to boot, I probably would have thought my friend was the messiah, too! That would have been some miracle!

Don't you find that my stories about my mother-in-law make you a little edgy? If you laugh, it is with a little nervousness. The stories cut a little too close to the bone. Perhaps you, like me, have had similar experiences, just a little bit like Mark's healing story. My uncle Art was the primary caregiver for my grandmother. She had a case of the vapors from age 36 until she died at age 96. Art spent his life caring for her; she was sooooo weak. Yet when my uncle Chick came from Chicago, once a year, grandma brightened up, was full of energy, and would cook the fatted chicken. She did what? She got up and made dinner? You’re kidding!

Healing stories, such as Mark's, always bring a sense of incredulity and amazement. Yet, they resonate with our lives. Don't you feel a sense of rightness when good things happen? Don't you yearn for healing, wholeness and holiness, in your life? Don't you just feel better when you are in the presence of a good person?

When I was in seminary, I was appalled to learn that my father and mother would occasionally go into New York to hear Norman Vincent Peale. Peale had written a book called, The Power of Positive Thinking. One of the theologians at Yale remarked of the book, that he found Paul (St. Paul) appealing, but Peale appalling. Seminarians by nature are sycophants, so everyone twittered. I knew that my father was an educated man and was not gullible. So I asked him what it was that attracted him to Peale. My father replied, "The man is inspirational. I have lived through two world wars and the Depression. I know about evil and depravity. In the newspapers and in my work I read and hear of the heartaches of human experience. I need to hear good things, the positive things which fire our hope and our spirit." To the very end, my father was a man of faith and hope. He fought his private demons with a positive affirmation of life. His last words to my mother were, "Don't worry, I'll be all right."

You and I yearn for healing. We want to be free from worry. We ache to be all right, and for others to be all right too. Like my father, most of us are aware of the sorrows of the world, and many of us laugh because we are too old to cry. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, we find healing when we are touched by Christ Jesus. He beards our demons and chases them away.

Now look for a moment at what was going on two thousand years ago. At the time of Christ there were prophets, rabbis, and holy men who healed and performed miracles. There is little doubt that Jesus taught, preached, and healed. The world of His time knew that there were forces of evil, that there were powers of darkness. These forces were associated with illness and personified as demons.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus, was seen as a creator God, one who brought forth being. His nature was to show forth, to let-be, and to make Himself known. God was known not only in creation, but also in history, and through revelatory events and special persons, often kings or prophets. Evil was seen as that which was negative, destructive and full of those things, which turn one from God, and which, bind rather than free us, such as illness, death and catastrophe. The personification of those forces that are destructive and negative was the demons, those figures of non-being.

The word of the prophets brought judgment. The action of kings  brought victory. The faith of the people brought hope. But the spirit of the Lord brought renewal.

As one who knew the scriptures, Jesus lived the history and faith of Israel. As one dedicated to God, He was filled with the spirit. As one who prophesied and preached, His words challenged the old order and brought hope, renewal, and spiritual freedom. Is it any wonder, then, that He was remembered as a healer?

You and I know that a fully focused individual has a powerful aura. An individual who concentrates upon that which is positive and good has a numinous quality of both attracting and repelling. There is often nothing more appealing than a really good individual. And yet there is often nothing more frightening than a really good individual, one with clear vision and high principles, who will not compromise, who insists upon that which is right and true, who will die a martyr rather than give in. Such a man touched Simon's mother-in-law. Despair, depression, hopelessness, the fevers of life left. She got up to serve Him. Her demons ran for cover.

That was then. What about now? Are there not times when you feel weighed down by the forces of negativism, pessimism and cynicism? Like my father, don't you sometimes find it hard to press on with your life? Cynicism can be addictive. Constant criticism can be corrosive. Unfulfilled expectations can be a trap. Worldly desires can enslave us. My father had it right when he said that we need to hear good things. We need to hear the good news. We need to hear the words of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those are the positive words of forgiveness. Those are the Beatitudes of blessing. Those are the words of the Lord's Prayer. Those are the words of the Last Supper. Those are the words of the community of faith. Those are the positive, creative, and sustaining words that really touch us. Through the life of the community of faith, through the actions of our Christian neighbors who constitute the body of Christ, you and I find the touch of Jesus Christ.

The touch of Christ through the community of faith is a healing touch to the heart and to the soul. It gives relief to the broken hearted, comfort to the afflicted, food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty.

There have been times in my ministry when my words and my presence brought pain. But it is by the grace of God and by my faith and the faith, which I have through the church, that there have also been moments in which my words, my presence and my touch brought goodness and healing.

Is that not also true for you? Were there not moments of love that quieted and fed a baby, brought relief to a fevered brow, forgiveness to a conflict or comfort to a grieving relative? It is moments such as those when you and I are part of something bigger than our selves. We are part of that which is positive and redemptive. It is moments such as those, which beard the demons, and confound the powers of darkness.

The healing presence of Christ is a real presence. It is a presence, which you and I acknowledge in individual and corporate worship. It is a presence, which we receive in the sacraments.

It is that presence of God through the Holy Spirit, which heals and inspires you and me to get up and serve the Master through love, diligence, charity and imagination. When we do those things, for a Mary or a Gladys or a Bill or a Peter, you and I know that that presence is special, that it is God inspired. At such times of healing, you and I can only say, “Thanks be to God. Alleluia.” (BCP. p. 340) Amen. –Fr. Gage -

 

Monday
Jan292018

Possessed

POSSESSED

1/28/18

Epiphany Four

Mark tells us that on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught with authority. That is to say, He did not simply rehearse what the scriptures said, nor did he indulge in exegesis. Jesus asserted His own interpretation. He taught with authority. Where upon He was confronted by a man who was possessed by an evil spirit (elsewhere known as a demon). Jesus confronts the evil spirit and casts it out of the man. Jesus thereby asserts His authority as both teacher and healer. This story is followed by another healing story.

Now, what is the focus or point of today’s passage in Mark ? Why is it told? Well, it seems to me that it is told to emphasize the authority of Jesus. He has just called the fishermen to leave their vocations and families and to follow Him. (Some were already followers of John the Baptist.) Jesus is to be their new leader.

The next step in Mark is to place Jesus’ authority over against the world, and particularly the world of the spirits within man and society that yield estrangement and decay. The unclean spirit is both within an individual and also in a greater sense within the world. Jesus asserts His authority over against that which is negative, perverse, destructive and corrupting.

By Jesus’ calling out the unclean spirit, the man becomes whole. He lives in a righteous relationship to God. Note that this incident is set over/against the synagogue. By asserting Jesus’ authority, Mark sets up Jesus authority as a new chapter in faith – one that is over against the traditions of the Old Testament and Judaism. Jesus is not only a prophet and teacher, He is also a healer. His disciples understand Him as one who has authority or power over those who are possessed by unclean spirits as well as a society that is possessed by alienating, or unclean, spirits.

Now it is easy to place this struggle of the individual and or society with unclean spirits, or those powers that possess us and are often not wholesome, but are negative and destructive, as something in ancient times. But I think the struggle with being possessed, and seeking wholeness and health are quite germane to our lives today.

When I was a child and misbehaved, my father would ask, “What ever possessed you to do that?” In other words, what was the impulse or rationale for such and such behavior? Well, in a broader sense, some people are possessed by fears or compulsion that shape their behavior.

In 1958, my bishop, Anson Phelps Stokes, assigned me to work in the Yale Psychiatric Institute as a mental health aide. On my floor there were twelve men and women in their late teens and early twenties who were “mentally ill.” There was a wide range of education. One was a concert pianist. Another was the editor of the Yale Law Review. Another was a plumber. They were given counseling, medication and shock therapy. They were possessed by their illnesses and obsessions.

I have had courses and clinics in psychology, psychiatry and mental illness. In effect, I know very little about mental illness. What I do know is that the patient seeks and needs a solid core – a certainty to center and stabilize him/her. For many, they don’t have that certainty at their core due to various reasons. They are buffeted and adrift.  Some are able to find some stability and purpose – understanding and love. They are the fortunate ones. They may be rooted in a faith tradition, which provides some constants and directions. Most have no faith tradition. But even with a faith tradition many of its adherents deal with mental health issues. Even so, social structures can help: family/ communities/ religious institutions can help. However in some cases they can be hurtful.

For us, the liturgy with its confessions, petitions, praise and thanksgiving can both move the soul and also provide purpose, understanding, catharsis, encouragement and love.

In the Mass there are concrete elements (the bread and wine) along with narrative reflection, as well as spiritual and intellectual engagement.

I believe the Mass does call out the unclean spirit within us –both collectively and individually. It is a healing process of mind and soul. Our unclean spirits of fear, shame, guilt, obsessive compulsions for money, success and position are met with the more positive experiences of forgiveness, affirmation, charity and love.

In the Mass we are reminded of Christ’s authority and power over the unclean spirits. We are given hope, purpose and love. We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, which renews our lives and the lives of those whom we serve. Amen.

 

Monday
Jan222018

Fishers Three

FISHERS THREE

Mark 1:14-20

1/25/15

Gather 'round me, everybody

Gather 'round me while I'm preachin'

Feel a sermon comin' on me

The topic will be sin and that's what I'm ag'in'

If you wanna hear my story

The settle back and just sit tight

While I start reviewin'

The attitude of doin' right

You've got to accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

And latch on to the affirmative

Don't mess with Mister In-Between

 

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum

Bring gloom down to the minimum

Have faith or pandemonium's

Liable to walk upon the scene

 

To illustrate my last remark

Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark

What did they do just when everything looked so dark?

 

(Man, they said, "We'd better accentuate the positive")

("Eliminate the negative")

("And latch on to the affirmative")

Don't mess with Mister In-Between (No!)

Don't mess with Mister In-Between

 

(Ya got to spread joy up to the maximum)

(Bring gloom down to the minimum)

(Have faith or pandemonium's)

(Liable to walk upon the scene)

 

You got to ac (yes, yes) -cent-tchu-ate the positive

Eliminate (yes, yes) the negative

And latch (yes, yes) on to the affirmative

Don't mess with Mister In-Between

No, don't mess with Mister In-Between.

 

Lyrics and music by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. #1 in 1945 on Billboard. Sung by Bing Crosby, The Andrew’s Sisters, played by Artie Shaw.

A fun song. Part of American secular religion, it is meant to be uplifting and direct. Its simplicity is appealing. Its theology is appalling, because for the Christian, for those of us who stand in a church that embraces countless martyrs, there is more to the Gospel than accentuating the positive.

You and I are called to be “fishers of men.” We are called to witness, sacrifice and lead others to Christ and to salvation. We are called to join with the communion of saints, to be Christ’s body in the world.

I want to tell you about “three fishers of men,” extraordinary ordinary individuals who bore witness to the Gospel. Their names have been changed. Nevertheless, they were fishers, for by the witness of their lives, they brought others to “the good news.”

Alice was in her late eighties, confined to her bed and dying from the complications of diabetes. I always liked to call on her because she looked like the Pillsbury Dough woman. She was roly-poly with the whitest skin and even whiter hair. In her room there was a Bible, Grauman’s portrait of Jesus, a picture of the Queen and a snapshot of a niece. On her chest was a small cross at the end of a delicate chain. One morning I was called by the head nurse to come see Alice. “Alice is dying. She is in a coma, can’t speak or hear.  However, she has left the request that we call you when she entered the time of dying.” I went into the room and Alice lay very still in her bed. The comforter was tucked under her ample chin. I read prayers for healing and “the prayers at the time of death.” Then I sat and read the Twenty-third Psalm and Psalm One Hundred and Twenty-one. After a minute or so Alice opened her eyes, smiled and said, “It is so good to hear those beautiful words from the Prayer Book and the Psalms, and to open my eyes and see your smiling face.” She then closed her eyes and turned her head. I blessed her, kissed her cheek and left. I buried her a week later.

In the poverty of her condition, her illness and circumstances, she had blessed me and carried the message of the Good News. She was at peace with herself and God and firmly connected to her Christian tradition. Although in some pain, she was not in despair. Although close to death, she was not afraid. She could affirm life and others. Hers were words of faith, hope and peace. In life she witnessed to her faith and brought others to a better understanding of the Christian life. In her Godly dying, she witnessed to God’s forgiveness, the peace that passes understanding and the promise of eternal life.

Some people are so smart they are down right scary. Such was the case with Ray, one of my roommates from l953-57 at Yale. Ray and I both came from the Midwest and were reared Methodist. He was a voracious reader and had an “inquiring mind.” Very early on he lost his simplistic protestant piety and became an avowed agnostic. But the religious questions continued to haunt him. “Who am I? Where am I going? Is life totally without direction and meaningless?” Ray read Augustine, Sartre, Aquinas and Whitehead. He also took courses from and talked to some of the learned faculty members. At that time there were professors who went to church and embraced the Christian faith. Such men were Richard Sewall, author of The Vision of Tragedy, Cleanth Brooks, author of The Well Wrought Urn, and Louis Martz, author of The Poetry of Meditation Sewall was (I think) a Congregationalist, Brooks an Episcopalian, and Martz a Roman Catholic, brilliant men in the field in which Ray majored. There was also Franklin Baumer, who taught “Intellectual History of Western Europe,” probably the best course I ever took. He was (I think) Dutch Reform, a seeker and one on an intellectual pilgrimage. Ray finally read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain. It was time to stop playing games and to start deciding what counted and what did not. Ray underwent an intellectual conversion experience, became a Roman Catholic and eventually a priest. He has continued to pursue rigorous inquiry (earning a PhD) and to push the edges of intellectual exploration – while at the same time ministering to the downtrodden in very poor areas of Canada.

Ray proclaims the Good News at Madonna House in Kitchener, Cumbermare, Ontario, in his pursuit of truth and his insistence upon blending active intellectual inquiry with hands-on Christian charity and compassion. He attracts those who seek to know the truth and to be set free from cynicism, nihilism and stoicism. My friend, Fr. Dora, former Catholic Chaplain at Stamford Hospital, knew Ray.

Jack was a high school science teacher who earned his degree on the G.I. Bill. He coached baseball and was a sponsor for several clubs. He had grown up on a farm in Western Kansas and was of German and Norwegian stock. Although far from “cool”, he drove a ’51 black Mercury coupe. More importantly, he taught the high school Sunday school class. Sometimes there were forty-five of us and other times only five. He was direct, honest, firm and committed. At school he never proselytized, but you always knew that he demanded the highest moral and ethical behavior, while at the same time he was tolerant of adolescent hijinks. Jack believed in the promise of the Gospel, that forgiveness and redemption are possible though Jesus Christ and that there is the hope of living a life that counts. He thought that truth, peace and hope are not mutually exclusive. Hundreds of young people’s lives were shaped by this man’s mature Christian life.

 Whether consciously or not, people witness through their lives to their faith. Some people claim to be Christian, but stay home and don’t think much about matters of faith. Others see religion as not a possible solution to life’s problems but the probable cause of many of life’s problems. They are called by Christ to proclaim the Good News and to be fishers of men, and they decline. They squander God’s grace.

Those of us who come to church seek God’s grace and want to hear the Good News. We want more out of life than we have, and we listen to Jesus’ call to proclaim the Gospel and to be fishers of men. In giving we receive. Now most of us fall into one of three categories, and perhaps no one category is necessarily better than another. Some of us, like Alice, bear very heavy physical, psychological, financial or family burdens. Others of us are genuine seekers like Ray. We probe and wonder and consider and explore. We are committed but our faith is an active intellectual pilgrimage. Still others of us are mature Christians. Our faith is deep and grounded. Like Jack we know where we stand and what counts. We understand that to be a Christian is always to be in the state of becoming, and yet we know that for us many things are settled.

In whatever category you may place yourself, heed the call to witness to the Good News and to Jesus as the Christ. Be encouraged in your witness, knowing that you are doing well. At the same time be challenged to do more than “accentuate the positive,” Be challenged to use the gifts of memory, reason and imagination to bring others to the Good News, which is the news of truth, hope, peace, promise, immortality and salvation. (1) Individually and corporately you and I, here at St. Andrew’s, are challenged to be fishers of men. Like Simon, Andrew, James and John and like my friends Alice, Ray and Jack You and I can with joy and confidence (in the words of today’s collect) “proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.” (2) When you arise tomorrow, hang a sign on your door. “Gone fishin.” Amen.

 

1)   Barclay, William The Gospel of Mark,  The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975.  p.25.

2)   Book of Common Prayer, p. 215.